United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MATTER comes before the Court on the United States'
Motion in Limine for Pre-Trial Determination of
Indian Country Land Status (ECF No. 79). Defendant filed a
response opposing the motion. The Court, having considered
the motion, response, relevant law, and otherwise being fully
advised, will grant the motion for pre-trial determination of
Indian Country land status and will hold a hearing on this
matter on Tuesday, April 30, 2019.
United States asks the Court to make a pre-trial
determination that the land upon which the alleged crime
occurred, on the dates listed in the Superseding Indictment,
is Indian Country for purposes of federal criminal
jurisdiction. Gov.'s Mot. 1, ECF No. 79. The Government
asserts that the location of the charged crime occurred at a
residence that has been determined using GPS coordinates
“to be within the exterior boundaries of the San Felipe
Pueblo Indian Reservation, which is held in restricted land
status by the United States of America for the Pueblo of San
Felipe, a federally-recognized Indian Tribe.”
Id. at 1. The Government argues that, while the
question of whether the offense occurred at the location in
the Superseding Indictment is a question for the jury, the
question of land status of that location is a jurisdictional,
legal question for the Court. In support, the Government
attached a Land Status Certificate from the United States
Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, as an
exhibit (ECF No. 79-1). Although the Government does not
believe a hearing is necessary, it is prepared to present
evidence at a pre-trial hearing.
opposes the motion and requests the Court submit the matter
of jurisdiction to the jury. Def.'s Resp. 2, ECF No. 100.
Defendant argues that a district court is not required to
take the approach the Government suggests, although he
acknowledges that under Tenth Circuit law “a district
court may make a pretrial jurisdictional finding,
and leave to the jury the question of whether the alleged
events occurred at the alleged location.” Id.
Defendant notes that the Government is seeking a life
sentence, and urges it is most appropriate to require the
government to prove all essential elements of the charge
against him, including that the alleged crime occurred in
Indian Country. Id.
Tenth Circuit in United States v. Roberts explained
that as “a general matter, the trial court decides the
jurisdictional status of a particular property or area and
then leaves to the jury the factual determination of whether
the alleged crime occurred at the site.” 185 F.3d 1125,
1139 (1999). Accordingly, “a trial court also acts
appropriately when it makes the jurisdictional ruling a
particular tract of land or geographic area is Indian
Country, and then instructs the jury to determine whether the
alleged offense occurred there.” Id. The party
seeking to invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court must
demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the case
is within the court's jurisdiction. United States v.
Bustillos, 31 F.3d 931, 933 (10th Cir. 1994). The United
States then has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt
that the alleged crime occurred on that particular tract of
land or geographic area. See Id. at 1139-40.
Honorable Martha Vázquez addressed similar arguments
in United States v. Hunter, No. 11-CR-2015 MV, 2012
WL 13076178 (D.N.M. Aug. 21, 2012), and the Court finds her
reasoning persuasive in determining that a pretrial
determination of the issue is the preferred course:
Defendant highlights the fact that the court in
Roberts did not require district courts to
determine land status prior to trial. Nothing in
Roberts, argues Defendant, would prohibit the Court
from allowing the question of land status to go to the jury.
The Government responds that resolution of this question
prior to trial is preferable for a number of reasons. First,
the Government argues that charging the jury with resolving
this question would waste the jury's time and confuse the
issues. The Government further cites a double jeopardy
concern: should the jury acquit Defendant solely on grounds
that the Government failed to prove land status beyond a
reasonable doubt, the verdict would not be appealable.
However, a state court would refuse to try Defendant on this
offense because it would conclude it had no jurisdiction.
Accordingly, if the question of land status routinely went to
the jury, any given location could be Indian Country in one
trial, and non-Indian Country in another trial.
The Court finds the Government's reasoning, as well as
the out-of-circuit case law addressing this question, to be
persuasive. In Roberts, the court noted that a
number of its sister circuits “have had the opportunity
to state, in dicta, the trial court should not
submit to the jury the question of whether a particular tract
of land or geographic area is Indian Country.” 185 F.3d
at 1140. The Second Circuit has explained that “the
locus of the crime” is a factual element that must go
to the jury, whereas land status is essentially a legal
question of “whether the federal government has
accepted jurisdiction.” United States v.
Hernandez-Fundora, 58 F.3d 802, 810 (2d Cir. 1995)
(quotation omitted). Other courts have gone so far as to find
that submission of the question of land status to the jury
was error, albeit non-reversible error. In United States
v. Stands, 105 F.3d 1565, 1575 (8th Cir. 1997), the
Eighth Circuit held that “given a particular piece of
land, it is for the court, not the jury, to determine whether
that land is in Indian country.” In United States
v. Levesque, 681 F.2d 75, 78 (1st Cir. 1982), the First
Circuit held that the question of land status is “a
jurisdictional fact susceptible of determination without
reference to any of the facts involved in determining
defendants' guilt or innocence.” In
Stands, cited by the Tenth Circuit in
Roberts, the Eighth Circuit emphasized the fact that
the question of land status “is analytically distinct
from [the question of] whether the crime in fact occurred on
a particular piece of land or within a particular area. The
latter question-the location of the crime-is certainly a
factual issue for the jury.” 105 F.3d at 1575-76.
The Court finds that a pretrial determination of land status
will promote efficiency in this proceeding and will in no way
deprive Defendant of his right to a jury trial. If the Court
concludes that the area in question is Indian Country, the
Government must still prove at trial, beyond a reasonable
doubt, that the alleged offense occurred at this location.
This satisfies the constitutional requirement that all
elements of the offense be submitted to the jury and proven
beyond a reasonable doubt. See In re Winship, 397
U.S. 358, 364 (1970); see also Tenth Circuit Pattern
Jury Instruction 2.52 (“You are instructed that the
alleged murder occurred within the [territorial] [special
maritime] jurisdiction of the United States, if you find
beyond a reasonable doubt that such offense occurred in the
location described in the indictment.”).
Id. at *2-3. For the foregoing reasons, the Court
will conduct a pretrial hearing on the question of Indian
Country land status.
IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the United States'
Motion in Limine for Pre-Trial Determination of
Indian Country Land Status (ECF No. 79) is
GRANTED and the Court will hold a hearing ...